Book review, The Women’s Circle by Karyn Sepulveda, Ventura Press

A warm incisive novel about help and self-help and the thin line between failure and success.

Karyn Sepulveda sets out to tell two loosely intertwined stories in The Women’s Circle. The main yarn features a young Chilean immigrant, Anna, and is set in contemporary Sydney. The secondary story features Aisleen, a young married woman living in a village in Buckinghamshire, England about 250 years ago. 

Initially the only link between Anna and Aisleen appears to be their determination to lead a normal life and the strength they get from sharing with other women – the strength they derive from a women’s circle. They have little else in common; one is a former drug addict now working at a McDonald’s in Sydney and striving for a normal life after a term of imprisonment. The other is a woman in a forced marriage living long ago in a remote English village, battling evil domineering men. While Anna’s resolve to overcome her problems is strengthened by her glimpses of what Aisleen was able to achieve, the connection between the two comes across as somewhat forced.

Through a series of flashbacks, the reader learns of Anna’s migration to Australia and her academic success, which is interrupted by a love affair with exactly the sort of man she should have avoided. This man encourages her to take drugs and persuades her to abandon her studies in favour of a get-rich-quick scheme.  Anna is subsequently convicted of drug dealing and serves a six-year prison term. 

This is a story that gives a good detailed account of the protagonist’s past and her road back to normalcy, except that Anna’s six years in jail barely get a mention. Surely six years of imprisonment must leave its mark, but in Anna’s case this period comes across almost like an interlude to be forgotten.

As the reader learns more about Anna’s background in these flashbacks, they share with Anna a different experience triggered by a mysterious crystal. This crystal enables Anna to view how Aisleen rebelled against the horrendous restrictions imposed on women in her village by dominating men dubbed the enforcers:

’This married woman was seen three nights gone past, wandering in the woods several miles from home, unaccompanied.’ He slowed his speech for the last few words, treating the crowd as though they were not of sound mind. ‘The punishment for attempting to run away is six months for a first offence, two years for a second offence and death for a third offence.’ 

The use of flashbacks in storytelling is of course a perfectly legitimate device. At its best, the technique enhances the current plot while supplying relevant detail that might have resonated less if the story were told sequentially. However, too many flashbacks can be irritating and this novel borders on over-relying on them.

One of the pleasures of a good novel is to meet some likeable characters. Sepulveda gives us quite a few, not least Anna’s case worker, one of her housemates and her boss at McDonald’s. But the real strength of this novel is how deeply it involves readers in Anna’s world. They experience with her the difficulties of rehabilitation and the problems of adjusting to a drug-free life. They understand how and why the help of other women is so crucial – why a women’s circle, whether a formal gathering or not – is so important and how it can make the difference between failure and success.

The Women’s Circle by Karyn Sepulveda
Publisher: Ventura Press
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9781920727710
Pages: 252pp
Publication Date: 7 July 2021
RRP: $32.99

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer.